Massachusetts proposes ban on the sale of cell phone location data

The Location Shield Act could curtail the third-party access to consumers' private data.
cell phone in hand
The Location Shield Act would ban all location data sales to third-parties without user consent. DepositPhotos

Clicking “I Agree” on all those app and website Terms & Conditions grants companies a lot of data leeway, often including their ability to sell information such as your device location history. A data privacy bill recently proposed by Massachusetts legislators, however, could result in a nearly complete ban on purchasing and selling consumers’ mobile device location information. If passed, H.357/S.148 (also known as the “Location Shield Act”) would be the first-of-its-kind in the US and potentially offer a template for other states to emulate. The law comes alongside increasing concerns over medical privacy, online harassment, and law enforcement surveillance.

Sponsored by Massachusetts House Rep. Cindy Stone Creem, the Location Shield Act  is intended to protect “reproductive health access, LGBTQ lives, religious liberty, and freedom of movement by banning the sale of cell phone location information.” In the wake of the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v Wade last year, privacy and women’s rights advocates have repeatedly urged instituting legal protections for consumers’ location data.

[Related: Police are paying for AI to analyze body cam audio for ‘professionalism’.]

Although multiple states including California, Virginia, and Colorado have proposed or passed similar privacy laws, the Location Shield Act is the first US state law to ostensibly offer wholesale guard against buying and selling geo-data to third-party entities. Unlike the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), no US federal legislation currently protects all Americans’ digital information.

As The Wall Street Journal explained on Monday, location data is often collected by mobile apps, websites, and other services. Although such information does not include phone numbers or names, enough can be gleaned from the data to aid in determining one’s home, place of work, or travel habits. 

For example, aiding individuals who travel out-of-state to obtain abortion services, now legally nebulous in some states, could be established via accessing a mobile device’s geolocation info. A prior investigation from The WSJ also revealed the Department of Homeland Security has bought millions of phones’ worth of movement data in pursuit of warrantless surveillance of populations near the US border to curb illegal immigration.

[Related: Meta could protect users’ abortion-related messages whenever it wants, advocates say.]

The Location Shield Act, if passed, would make such tactics illegal in many cases. Consumers could still utilize location-necessary apps such as Uber and DoorDash, but those companies would not be allowed to sell the information to interested parties. Meanwhile, such data could still be accessed by certain outside sources such as law enforcement, but only after obtaining consumer consent. According to the ACLU, almost 92 percent of Massachusetts voters support a law banning the sale of mobile device location data.

Supporters, including the privacy nonprofit Fight for the Future, hope the bill will move to a vote within the current Massachusetts legislative session, which runs through next year.

“Whether you’re going to a doctor’s office, place of worship, or anywhere else, your movements should be private,” Caitlin Seeley George, Fight for the Future’s Campaigns and Managing Director, tells PopSci. “This bill looks at the big picture—privacy rights have to be included in the conversation about abortion rights, trans rights, and in fighting for the rights of all targeted groups.”